PARASHAT SHEMINI - BIRKAT HA-HODESH
April 17, 2004 - 26 Nisan 5764
Annual: Leviticus 9:1 - 11:47 (Etz Hayim, p. 630; Hertz p. 443)
Triennial Cycle: Leviticus 11:1 - 11:47 (Etz Hayim p. 636; Hertz p. 449)
Haftarah: II Samuel 6:1 - 7:17 (Etz Hayim p. 643; Hertz p. 454)
Prepared by Rabbi Jodie Futornick
McHenry County Jewish Congregation, Crystal Lake, IL
Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director
Triennial I (Leviticus 9:1 - 10:11)
Shmini begins on the eighth day of the ordination ritual of the Kohanim. Moses instructs the Kohanim to bring a variety of sacrifices, following which Moses and Aaron bless the people and the Presence of God appears to all. Aaron's sons, Nadav and Avihu, offer an alien fire to God, which causes God to strike them dead. Moses' only explanation for the tragedy is that God exclusively accepts specific sacrifices that God has commanded. Aaron's response is stunned silence. God then commands Aaron that Kohanim are prohibited from drinking intoxicating beverages while they are engaged in their sacred duties.
Triennial II (Leviticus 10:12 - 11:32)
Moses specifies to the surviving Kohanim where the offerings may be eaten. Moses continues to instruct Aaron and his sons in the appropriate behavior of the Kohanim, especially in the aftermath of the death of Nadav and Avihu. Beginning with Chapter 11, God instructs the Israelites in the dietary laws of kashrut, specifying the permitted and forbidden species of animals, birds, fish and insects.
Triennial III (Leviticus11:1-11:47)
The first 32 verses of Chapter 11 are a repetition of the dietary restrictions in Triennial section II. Four species of animals are forbidden by name: the pig, camel, rabbit and hare. Permitted animals must have cloven hooves and chew their cud. Fish must possess both fins and scales. Though it is not specifically stated in the Torah, the rabbis concluded that the birds of prey are generally prohibited, but that others are permitted. Certain insects are permitted as well. The portion concludes with warnings against ritual defilement from contact with animal carcasses, as well as a general warning to pay attention to laws of ritual purity.
Topic I: The Morality Underlying the Laws of Kashrut
The swine, though it has true hooves, with the hooves cleft through, it does not chew the cud. (Lev. 11:7)
- When the pig is resting, he stretches out his legs in front of him, displaying his cleft hooves. "How kosher I am," he seems to say, making no mention of the fact that he does not chew the cud. He symbolizes the hypocrite who parades his virtues and conceals his faults. (Leviticus Rabbah, 13:5)
- We would do well to bear in mind that the dietary laws are not, as some have asserted, motivated by medical considerations. Were that so, the Torah would be denigrated to the status of a minor medical study and worse than that. (Isaac ben Moses Arama, 15th century author of the commentary Akedat Yitzhak)
- The Torah did not come to take the place of a medical handbook but to protect our spiritual health. [Foods forbidden by the Torah] poison the pure and intellectual soul, clogging the human temperament, demoralizing the character, promoting an unclean spirit, defiling in thought and deed, driving out the pure and holy spirit. (Don Isaac Abavranel, 1437-1508, Spanish and Portuguese commentator)
- Keeping kosher is a way of preparing oneself to receive the word of God. It is a way of cultivating the bodily habits that will make one a fit receptacle for the Divine Presence. (Rabbi David Blumenthal in God at the Center, Harper and Row Publishers, 1987)
Questions for Discussion
- The laws of kashrut, Jewish dietary laws, are listed among the "Hukim," non-rational laws which appear in the Torah with no apparent logic. Over the centuries, such great scholars as Maimonides, who was himself a physician, argued that the laws of kashrut were devised with purely physical healing considerations. Other scholars, though, such as Arama and Abavranel and many later commentators, take issue with this position, and insist that the laws of kashrut are for moral instruction alone. Do you agree with the adamancy of this moral position? What moral and/or spiritual benefit do you derive from observing the laws of kashrut? Identify other commandments in the Torah whose purpose is spiritual/moral and not practical. Can you think of other ethical arguments for the observance of the laws of kashrut?
Topic II: Kashrut As an Strengthener of Jewish Identity
This is the law of the beast, and of the fowl, and of every living creature that moveth in the waters, and of every creature that swarmeth upon the earth; to make a difference between the unclean and the clean, and between the living thing that may be eaten and the living thing that may not be eaten. (Lev. 11:46-47)
- Every Jew must be set apart in laws and ways of life from other nations so as not to imitate their behavior... the laws we observe make us remember at every moment the God who commanded them... the numerous mitzvoth and laws of our Torah accustom human beings to exercise self-control..." (Samuel David Luzzato)
- Kashrut is particularly effective in lending Jewish atmosphere to the home, which, in the Diaspora is our last-ditch defense against the inroads of assimilation. (Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan)
- [Kashrut has] high survival-value for the Jewish group, serving as a reminder to Jews of their identity and as a deterrent to being swallowed up by the non-Jewish world. Judaism, like all minority faiths, stands constantly in the peril of being absorbed into oblivion. Only on a foundation of preservative group practices can it persevere in its higher aims. (From Rabbi Milton Steinberg, Basic Judaism, 1947)
Questions for Discussion
- It has been said that "More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews." Is this true of kashrut our dietary rules, as well? In what ways have you felt that observance of the laws of kashrut has strengthened your identity as a Jew, or our collective identity as a Jewish community? What mitzvot and/or laws of the Torah aid you to exercise self-control? Which are notable in the fight against assimilation?